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Passing the Q: A Practical Guide

jen apodaca q grader cupping roasting

Jen Apodaca

In 2003, The Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) created the arabica Q grader program and began to certify coffee professionals, calibrating them to a shared scoring and grading system. This was an incredible undertaking and a global effort. Coffee evaluation by sensory analysis can be very subjective. Is your dark roast what I would call a medium roast? Or is your berry jam my balsamic vinegar? or is my phenol your… well, let’s hope we can all agree on that one.

There are now more than 4,000 Q graders worldwide, and this has created a common sensory language surrounding arabica coffee from the producer to the coffee roaster. This common language helps producers understand the desired attributes that garner higher prices and deliver product that will sell at fair prices. Most folks who choose to become Q graders work in Quality Control Labs at the producer level, export level, importer level, and roaster level. Beyond assessing the value and quality of a green coffee sample, many folks in coffee education find taking the test useful for the training techniques alone. Sometimes getting the same five people under the same roof to calibrate as a team can be just as daunting of a task.

Becoming a certified Q grader was a long time goal of mine, a way to prove to myself that I am a coffee sensory professional. Even though I have been cupping coffee five times a week for more than a decade, I was still apprehensive to take the test, and also of its $2,000 price tag. It is an investment in yourself to take and pass the Q exam.

With the high price tag, some people may be deterred from taking the test. Will you get that promotion if you become a Q grader? I think the answer is, inescapably, yes. While it is true that other countries and cultures value certification more than it is sometimes valued in the U.S., taking the Q will have a positive impact on your confidence, and can be a validating experience. Perhaps it will motivate you to apply to that job you thought was out of your league. It certainly had this effect on me, and the education that I gained was well worth the cost, even if I had not passed.

The best information I received was from friends who had taken the test and a few articles that explain the process. Some of these articles are quite old and not up to date with the current test. Likewise, your friend may not be aware of any test changes that have occurred since, so make sure to ask how long ago their experience was.

Finding study material for this test is difficult. Do not let this deter you. Of the six days that you will spend in the lab, three of those days are practice. Take advantage of this time; focus, learn your strengths and weaknesses. I want to share with you some strategies that worked for me based on a few of the tests.


The olfactory test consists of identifying coffee aromas from the Le Nez du Café Aroma kit. It is essentially a matching and identification test. Before taking the test, I had the opportunity to play with a kit once. This was almost two years before I would actually take the test. I remembered the names of a few of the aromas, mostly the ones I had difficulty identifying. If you have access to a Le Nez kit, definitely take some time to orient yourself with it. The SCA sells the kits and informational posters that will help you learn all 36 aroma names. Check with other coffee folks in your committee, especially if they run an SCA campus, since they will most likely have a kit that you can check out.

Once you get access to a kit, whether it is during the practice session of your weeklong Q adventure, or you were lucky enough to find one in advance, many folks have difficulty relating the aromas in the kit based on their cupping experience. THAT IS OKAY!

Sensory memory is part of our short-term memory, and is tied to our perception of the world as we filter a flood of information through sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. When we cup coffee, we choose to actively pay attention to aromas, which then pass from sensory memory to short-term memory. The Human Memory has more on this:

Smell may actually be even more closely linked to memory than the other senses, possibly because the olfactory bulb and olfactory cortex (where smell sensations are processed) are physically very close — separated by just 2 or 3 synapses — to the hippocampus and amygdala (which are involved in memory processes). Thus, smells may be more quickly and more strongly associated with memories and their associated emotions than the other senses, and memories of a smell may persist for longer, even without constant re-consolidation.

On how sensory memory is passed to the short-term (working) memory, Human Memory writes:

Information is passed from the sensory memory into short-term memory via the process of attention (the cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things), which effectively filters the stimuli to only those which are of interest at any given time.

It will take more than just once or twice with the Le Nez kit, free from distraction, to really include these into your personal arsenal of sensory memory. If fruity/fermented coffee always brings up grape bubblegum, chances are you have had an entire childhood creating this sensory memory. So cut yourself some slack, these aromas are not unfamiliar to you at all and you may have already built sensory memories with these aromas but with different names.

With my limited experience with the kit, this is the strategy I employed. Oh, vial A smells like puppy breath so it must be roasted coffee. Vial B smells like liquid cosmetic foundation so that must be coffee blossom. I had plenty of time with the kit during the practice round to make these associations, and beyond a few that I knew I would have trouble with, I felt confident going into the test.

Heads Up

  1. These kits lose intensity as they age. Be prepared to identify the vials in all of the cases the instructor is using. Roasted Coffee may be strong in the kit you are practicing with and then faint when you take the test.

Since the test, I have incorporated more of the aromas into my personal sensory memory vocabulary. For example, I had a hard time identifying garden peas because it reminded me of the potato defect. For the test, I equated the garden peas (Le Nez #3) to raw potato, and the potato (Le Nez #2) to french fries. In the short term it worked for the test and I passed. Now, a year later, I have found that I am incorporating the Le Nez garden peas into my sensory lexicon and I have an easier time identifying it in coffee.

Sensory Skills: Sweet, Sour, Salty

This test is all about your tongue and your sensory receptors because these solutions are odorless! You will have three different water solutions at different concentrations that you will be evaluated on: Salt, Sweet, and Sour. The first part of the test will have you rank the intensities of all the solutions from low to high. Fortunately, this will be led by your instructor so pay attention because you will be asked to rank a blind set directly afterwards. This part of the test you should sail through because if you have the order arranged incorrectly, a lower intensity cup will taste like nothing if it follows a cup with a higher concentration.

The third portion of the test will ask you to identify mixed solutions with varying intensities. I’ll be honest, this is really tough. If you finish the second portion of the test early enough, use the remainder of the time to sample low salt with high sugar and other combos that you think will be difficult to identify. During the practice rounds concentrate on texture and not just taste. The tactile sensation can help you identify the concentrations of the solutions. Sweet is usually slippery or thicker than the others.

Heads Up

  1. You can recreate the solutions with sugar, table salt, and citric acid to get an idea of how these solutions interact with each other when they are combined.
  2. Be mindful of over-tasting and reserve some of the liquid from earlier cups to use as reference or as a control.
  3. Over-tasting will lead to palate fatigue. Make every slurp counts and be mentally prepared to taste the coffee.
  4. Trust your instincts and do not second guess yourself. Your first impression is usually correct.


A triangulation test is a simple concept; identify the odd cup. There are four separate tests based on coffee growing regions. You will need to successfully identify similar coffees of the same region or process. During the practice rounds you have the opportunity to taste four of the six coffees you will be tested on.

As a group you will taste these coffees and calibrate on descriptors. Focus on the dominant flavor character of that coffee. What makes it unique from the others? Does it taste the same hot, warm, and cold? Take notes. Creating a sensory memory of these coffees now will only be an advantage when you taste them again for the test.

jen apodaca q grader cupping roasting

Some triangulation tests will be more difficult than others. Knock out the ones that seem obvious and focus on those that need more of your attention. Alternating the order that you taste the cups can also be very helpful. On more difficult triangulations where the coffees are more similar and harder to differentiate, I like to identify the two that are the most similar and use process of elimination to find the odd cup out. If you have experience cupping with a control sample, this is just like that.

Heads Up

  1. Over-tasting will lead to palate fatigue. Make every slurp counts and be mentally prepared to taste the coffee.
  2. Trust your instincts and do not second guess yourself. Your first impression is usually correct.

Acids Test

The Acids test is one of the most familiar tests to sensory professionals. As cuppers, we often describe a coffee by the type of acids we taste. Of course not all of them are great like butanoic (vomit) and isovaleric (barnyard). Fortunately, those two are not very common in specialty coffee. You will be expected to know the most common acids associated with coffee: citric, malic, phosphoric, acetic, lactic, and quinic. The last two, lactic and quinic, will not be in the acids test, but may be in the written test, so pay attention when your instructor describes their attributes.

In the test, you will be tasting the acid solution in a mild coffee and a control sample will be available to you. You will be tested on eight sets of four cups. In each set of four, two of the cups will be unaltered and two of the cups will be spiked. You must identify the spiked cups and name the acid that the cups have been spiked with.

Many cuppers that I know have two acids that they can easily identify and two that they often confuse with another acid. Here is a quick guideline to the way I think about these acids in contrast with each other.

Organic Acids: carbon-based

Citric – intense citrus fruits with a sour finish (lemon)

Malic – tart, but with a sweet finish (green apple)

Acetic – vinegar with a bitter finish (white vinegar)

Inorganic Acid: mineral-based

Phosphoric – complex citrus fruits with a mineral or dry finish (sprinkling salt on melon or mango)

Heads Up

  1. Practice tasting coffees with a control sample, which is a very common testing method in sensory science. As a roaster you may do this already in production cuppings to check consistency with your products.
  2. Focus on the acids that you know first and save your palate for the ones that give you the most difficulty.

Cupping SCAA Form

If you are taking this test, you should already be confident using the SCAA cupping form. You will be graded on properly filling out the form, accurately identifying green coffee defects, and calibrating with your team. To practice for this test, cup lots of different coffees from different origins and different processing methods. You should know and understand regional flavors and differences in the cup profile.

Here is a video of Trish Rothgeb, former director of the Coffee Quality Institute, giving a lecture at Nordic Barista in 2013, speaking to why calibration is important and the intricacies of the SCAA cupping form.

Heads Up

  1. Most roasting companies feature specific coffee flavor profiles. Find out which coffees you lack exposure to and taste them often so that you can understand the range of values and flavors associated with that origin or process.
  2. Cup with new people and listen to what they say about the coffee. At work it is easy to become super calibrated with our coworkers, but it’s healthy to burst that safe cupping bubble every now and again.

Grading: Green and Roasted

Time to fill out the green grading form and do a physical analysis of the coffee. This is a great skill and not always easy to routinely put into practice in our daily work life.

Study the form and the criteria, know your primary defects versus secondary defects. You will have an Arabica Green Coffee Defect Handbook at your disposal that has a nice spiral binding so you can easily flip through and identify defects.

jen apodaca q grader cupping roasting

Grading roasted coffee has everything to do with the green quality and not with the roasted quality of the coffee. The sample you will be sorting should be roasted to SCA standards. What you are looking for are quakers, which are most commonly the result of immature or unripe berries, although lack of nutrients in the soil can also have the same effect. The lack of sugar development in the coffee seed will not caramelize in the roaster and the roasted coffee will appear light or pale.

Heads Up

  1. Do not overgrade the samples. Give them a thorough screen and only pull defects that you are confident identifying. If you are running out of time, you are overgrading the sample.
  2. Only identify defects in the book. If it is not in the book, it is not a defect.
  3. Fill out the form correctly!!! Don’t forget to circle the coffee color or write “specialty” in the SCA grade field and not “yes” like I did the first time.

Sample Roast Identification

Roast level can alter your perception of coffee quality by altering the flavor profile. During evaluations it is important to know that your sample has been prepared to the proper roast level. A Q grader should be able to identify if a roast is underdeveloped, baked, or roasted too dark for evaluation. As a coffee roaster, this test will not be very difficult, especially if you already incorporate a color grading system into your day to day work. If you are new to evaluating roast levels, ask a roaster friend to roast you some samples. The samples are prepared for you so there will be no hints by looking at the thickness of the crust and the test is done under red light to eliminate color as a variable.

Set before you will be four of five possibilities of roasted coffees to evaluate by cupping: too light, just right, too dark, underdeveloped, and baked.

Too light will be very citric and have an intense acidity, which can be perceived as sour with very low sugar browning notes. Too dark is also easy to identify because most of the acidity will be eliminated in favor of sugar browning flavors.

An underdeveloped roast will have flavor qualities like cereal grains and a vegetal starchy flavor, like Le Nez Garden Peas #3. This usually stems from needing more internal development in the roast.

Baked flavors can also be very difficult to identify for a non-roaster. A baked coffee can be light in roast degree, but lacking acidity because it was roasted for a long period of time with a low rate of change. Some cuppers associate baked flavors with bready notes. Many people enjoy baked coffee and you may even prefer it to the other cups in the test.

Identifying the sample with the correct roast degree can be the most difficult for test takers. For many, it can be much lighter or much darker than they are used to tasting at their workplace and that will be enough to throw them off. The best way to prepare is to taste several coffees at the recommended SCAA sample roast parameters.


Taking the Q is not a walk in the park. Even experienced cuppers will find difficulty passing. There are 20 Individual tests that you must pass to become a certified Q grader. The most comprehensive guide I have found is by Coffee Strategies. You can also sign up to take the Pre-Q which is less time and a lower cost to help you prepare for the test.

Some folks swear by eating bland foods during the test so you have no distracting residual flavors competing with your sensory analysis. I agree that eating foods with strong odors will interfere, but make sure to not go overboard. If you are a smoker, I do not recommend quitting for the week you take the Q exam. When I quit smoking, coffee tasted different to me and I had to work really hard for several months to recalibrate to my team. It’s the same with spicy foods and other distractions. If you have spent years building your sensory lexicon with these “distractions,” you might find yourself struggling to identify flavors that came easy to you before. If you choose to eliminate smoking, or spicy, sugary foods with strong odors during the test, I suggest starting the process several weeks or months before the exam so you can practice tasting coffee under these conditions. Of course if you are a smoker or choose to eat a plate of garlic the night before, your classmates will smell you and you may interfere with their ability to pass the test, so be mindful and respectful of others.

Most importantly, this test is mentally and physically exhausting. You can quickly become overwhelmed and develop palate fatigue if you are not in the habit of cupping with intention several times a day. Do not plan any social events or try and work during this time. Rest up, eat well, and be physically and mentally prepared. These are long 8+ hour days that demand your complete attention.

Respect yourself and remember to breathe.